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Updated: 07/10/2014 07:32:48PM

Why there is

an elephant in the Depot

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Jim Gouvellis

Jim Gouvellis

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Every town has its treasure.

Philadelphia has the Liberty Bell, Washington has the White House and Lake Wales has Mimi Hardman.

And now, something that our walking, talking city treasure created and nurtured is in trouble.

Mimi has been the driving force behind many great things in our city. She has, through the years, worked to make our town a great place to live and visit. But the one thing she has done, and the thing she will long be remembered for, is her work in historic preservation. Because of her we have Pioneer Days, a festival much like any other, except that we take the time each year to honor a Pioneer of the Year. Mimi has made sure that we keep our history alive by recognizing the folks who have made history here, whether it was in the 1800s or 20 years ago.

Mimi was able to save the old Seaboard Coastline Railroad station from extinction and turn it into the city’s museum. She did that in the late 1970s and, through true grit, a lot of donations, state grants and help from the city she has kept it going.

The museum chronicles the history of our town, the area and its people. But it is now out of money and in danger of closing. That’s right, the Depot Museum might close its doors because it doesn’t have enough money to operate past October’s Pioneer Days.

According to Nick Smith, a volunteer with the Historic Lake Wales Society which operates the facility, its costs $1,200 to $1,500 a month to keep the doors open. There is no paid staff. Mimi works for free, the high school provides volunteers who earn community service credits, and the county provides folks doing probation-type work to do manual labor. Smith is not on the board but has had a growing influence in the historic society’s affairs.

The museum has been through tough financial scrapes before and has always come through. Through the years, state grants, donations and city money have always come through to save the day. The museum has always operated with strong community support. Mimi has been able to attract respected members of the community to the board to help guide and support the historic society.

But last year, something happened, something that many people know about but few will talk about publicly. It has been the elephant in the room for the museum for more than a year.

A rift between Nick Smith and Grand Hotel developer Ray Brown caused several folks, bankers, lawyers and accountants, to throw up their hands and leave the board.

The hotel issue is easily one of the most divisive in our community. It has spilled over into the operation of the museum.

Brown owes the museum $30,000, which the city got him to pledge when he took possession of the hotel. It still has not been paid. Smith and Brown were both active with the society and the museum.

Smith says he is negotiating with some person or entity, he would not say who, to purchase some of the museum’s assets. “If we are able to do this, and it would be a sizable amount, then that should get us through several years,” he said. Smith won’t say what “assets” are being offered for sale but because the society doesn’t own the building then it would be a good guess that some historical collection or other exhibit will be sold.

That is a shame and something that doesn’t need to happen. I asked Smith who was handling the museum’s current finances. He said, “I write the checks and Mimi signs them.”

Smith will give you an earful — an animated and expletive-laced earful — about how many of the troubles facing the museum are a result of the developer’s promise to donate money. The rift got so bad that many board members and volunteers, including Mimi’s son, Reid, left. Some, like her son, moved over to help Brown try to salvage the hotel project.

The museum’s problems are a mess with which not many want to get involved. But they need to be addressed and fixed. Mimi has worked too hard and helped the city too much for us to turn our back on her now.

City Manager Ken Fields says the city will probably hold a workshop on the museum sometime soon. That will be helpful.

The city has a stake in keeping the museum alive and healthy. It attracts visitors and contributes to the cultural fabric of the community.

What if the city took over the actual operation of the museum and asked Mimi to run it and help raise funds, find new exhibits and promote the history of our city?

The county’s history museum in Bartow is owned by the government. The city owns the Lake Wales Library, yet there is a Friends of the Library organization that supports it, too.

The city could then appoint a museum advisory board to help out. More people with a lot of expertise in finance, law and historical preservation might be willing to come back and help the museum under those circumstances.

This is just one idea. There are sure to be many more if the city holds a workshop. At the very least we should ask commissioners to help keep the lights on for a few months until a solution is found. Surely the city can find $1,500 a month on a temporary basis while the community has a conversation about the issue.

It would be nice, too, if interested parties discouraged the museum from selling any historical assets.

The current crop of commissioners should step in and fix the museum issue, as uncomfortable as it might be, so that Mimi Hardman’s life work is not put in jeopardy.

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